Thursday, May 17, 2012


Art Alert: only one month remains to catch up with a terrific traveling exhibit at the Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Park in SF.

The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, is a sensuous, multi-media freefall into the Aesthetic Movement, the ornate and highly decorative rebellion in the arts that played out in counterpoint to the propriety and the artistic formalism of the late Victorian Age. The show opened in February and closes one month from today, June 17.

We went up for the Pre-Raphaelite paintings that I've loved since my misspent youth, with their stylized medieval, Arthurian, and faux-classical imagery. And, of course, the illustrations of master draughtsman Aubrey Beardsley. He's best known for his bold, clean images (some reprints of his famed Salome illustrations are on display),  but despite his sensuality of line, his work is incredibly composed.

Take a look at this one, (The Abbe, 1894). It looks like an etching, but it's a pen and ink original in the show. Look at the detail! Until you see it in person (it's only about 6" x 12"), you can't really get a sense of the work involved.

All the usual suspects have paintings in the show—Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  Frederick Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt—and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head! But there's a lot more going on here than paintings and illustrations. Dozens of artists and craftsmen are represented, whose "Art For Art's Sake" aesthetic produced decorated cabinets, sideboards and chairs, ceramics and tiles, gilded fireplace surrounds, painted screens, jewelry, wallpaper, and two or three saucy, streamlined silver tea sets that presage Art Deco, and 1950s Atomic Moderne.

(There's even a mini-exhibit of luscious faux-medieval costumes from Liberty House of London, commissioned for wealthy patrons who wanted to dress the like the languorous characters in the paintings.)

This is just about my favorite piece in the show, the Ladies and Animals Sideboard painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1860). It's done in oil paint with gold and silver leaf applied to pine wood. In person, the paint is so thick in some areas, it almost looks 3-D, like mixed-media or decoupage, but it's just applications of paint, leaf, and patterns.

The figure on each panel is about 18" tall, and there are more female figures with animals painted on each side of the cabinet, as well. Apparently, Burne-Jones made this for his own home, and although he was a highly sophisticated painter, this piece has the expressive energy of folk art. I love it because it invites you to take something as simple and unassuming as a piece of plain wood furniture and make it into something unique and alive.

There are several of James McNeill Whistler's sumptuous portraits of women in white in the show, but this is a side of Whistler I'd never seen before! It's called The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor) (1879), and it's oil on canvas.

It's a huge painting (the figure is just about life-size), the gold elements really pop out of that teal background, and look at those scaly claws masquerading as hands and feet. (One art historian believes this picture is a lampoon of Whistler's former patron, Frederick Leyland, a man who wore frilly shirts, which accounts for the odd title.)

I was drawn to its graphic, illustrative quality (it could be out of an Arthur Rackham fairy tale book), so unusual for a painting of this size. Talk about Avant-Garde!

It shames me to admit I had never heard of Simeon Solomon before. But I found this  sweet little piece, The Sleepers and the One that Watcheth (1870) strangely haunting. It's very small (maybe 14" x 11 " or so), and although I would have sworn it was done in pastels, it's actually watercolor on paper.

The arrangement of the hands is a bit problematic, but I love the sense of dreamlike serenity. And see how the tiny star flowers (echoing the stars above) seem to weave a visual web around the two sleepers, while the watcher remains wakeful, and pensively removed.

This exhibit taps into a lot of the ferment that was going on in the arts during the rise of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. So much of the work of Aesthetic Movement artists was a hands-on response (if not reproach) to the Industrial Revolution, and the conformity of mass-produced objects. This artistic moment erupted at almost the same time as the anti-establishment Vienna Secession of the 1890s, and the turn-of-the-Century Arts and Crafts movement, and it is SO worth seeing these pieces up close and personal!

(And while you're there, don't miss the concurrent exhibit of Victorian Illustrated Children's Books in the tiny Logan Gallery (it's right next door to the museum cafe).  Examples culled from the museum's large collection of illustrated art books include splendid picture books by Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and William Nicholson—and what a treat they are!)

This is the only US venue on the Cult of Beauty tour. (The other whistle stops are the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Musee D'Orsay, Paris, so this is a pretty big deal.) Here's the preview on the Legion of Honor website, although if you go up mid-week, like we did, you can avoid the crowds AND the online ticketing fee.

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